How Obama Plans to Make Global Warming Personal

A White House campaign looks at how global warming impacts health.

ByABC News
July 9, 2013, 2:14 PM

July 9, 2013— -- Which concerns you more: that polar ice caps are melting or that your kid suffers from asthma?

President Obama is well aware your answer is the latter. The truth is, you should care about both. That's because they're related.

Climate change has contributed to everything from rising rates of asthma among children to a seemingly endless allergy season.

The administration wants to point that out. So the White House bestowed what they've dubbed the "Champions of Change" award on 11 people they say are "protecting public health in a changing climate" on Tuesday morning.

Doctor Yadira Caraveo, one of the awardees, trained as a pediatrician in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a town surrounded by mountains that trap smoggy air overhead.

She said during a panel discussion that on especially smoggy days, the number of children who showed up at the hospital for asthma treatments increased.

Doctor Linda Rudolph, head of the Center for Climate Change and Health at the Public Health Institute, said during the panel that "climate change is the greatest global health challenge of our time."

So what can people do about it?

Hospitals and healthcare providers should play a big role, experts say. Hospitals themselves are actually big producers of waste. They use lots of fossil fuels and their attention has been focused on helping people, not the environment.

They need instead to recognize that by shifting some focus to their environmental impact, they can actually help keep people out of the emergency room. By reducing waste output, they can combat things like allergies and asthma, panelists said.

Caraveo, who has worked with vulnerable immigrant and Native American populations in Colorado, said medical schools also need to be better about training community physicians in the impact of climate change on health. They stand as trusted figures in the community, she said, and can help patients understand the connection.

Local elementary schools need to get in on the act, too. Back when it was revealed that smoking is bad for you, many parents put down the cigarettes because they heard it was a bad habit from their kids. And kids heard it from their teachers. If kids learn about recycling, carbon footprints and greenhouse gases in the classroom, they might carry those lessons home.

Media companies can also play a role, according to Kizzy Charles-Guzman, another awardee and the director of the Climate and Health Program in New York City.

Through her work, she noticed a strange trend among elderly people during heat waves. Even though they were most vulnerable of suffering heat stroke, they didn't see themselves that way.

Why not? Because they got their information about heat waves from television meteorologists, who were more likely to show pets and attractive young joggers while talking about consequences of too much heat than the people who are most at risk. So she asked them to change.

That's the new mentality that the White House is embracing -- that climate change is a health issue, and that it's personal. The idea is that personalizing the issue will move people to action beyond recycling, to push for bigger changes that will preserve the environment.

"Climate change has been this abstract idea that scientists talk about, people aren't sure if it's true or if it affects them," Caraveo said. "Linking it to health is a way to get through to the community because we're all concerned about our own health, and the health of our children and grandparents."